Balancing Grading and Assessment with Student Portfolios

The conversation about the use of grades in schools is rife with strong opinions. More and more, traditional letter or numerical grades are proving an antiquated way of evaluating student progress.

As such, some schools have swapped grades for evaluation systems tied to standards-based proficiency models. Some, like education expert Alfie Kohn, argue that schools should do away with grades altogether.

Unfortunately, despite the mounting pushback, the reality for many teachers is that grades are still expected to be used to evaluate students. While some districts are very prescriptive in their grading policies, others afford teachers more leeway in choosing what and how to assign scores to student efforts.

In either case, it falls to teachers to fulfill their grading obligations while still offering students both meaningful feedback and appropriately tailored instruction. Focusing on quality assessment is the key.

Assessment and grading are not the same

Any conversation about grading needs to begin by clearly differentiating between assessing students and assigning students grades

Assessing students effectively involves a combination of both formative and summative approaches. Formative assessments happen throughout the learning process and are the stepping-stones of student progress. On the other hand, summative assessments evaluate the totality of a student’s understanding of a unit, topic, or concept.

Each of these types of assessment can take the form of formally graded products (such as a test, project, or practice problem), or informally evaluated experiences (like a conversation, a spot-check, a debate, or a reflection). Either way, teachers use the results of these assessments to develop lessons, plan interventions, and help students make learning gains.

It is important to remember that not all assessments take the form of graded work. Just because an assignment lacks a formal score does not disqualify it as an important, formative step for students. Similarly, an assessment does not automatically provide meaningful, actionable feedback to a student simply because it has a grade on it.

For these reasons, instruction rooted in authentic assessment data will always be superior to instruction focused exclusively on grades. Purposeful, growth-focused comments have more value than an 84% or a ‘B’ to a student.

The benefits of a portfolio approach to grading and feedback

Despite the research that grades are poor tools for evaluating student achievement, they remain entrenched in the educational experiences of many teachers and students.

In terms of practicality, assigning a grade to everything a student produces can quickly become an unrealistic burden for teachers. It consumes an inordinate amount of teachers’ time that could be put to better use developing and implementing learner-focused lessons, providing qualitative student feedback, or collaborating with professional peers

On the other hand, grading too little can be detrimental to an evaluation cycle where students, parents, and administrators expect grades as a measure of student effort and course progress. How, then, can teachers find the sweet spot between having too much to grade and not grading enough?

Enter portfolio-based grading.

While student portfolios can take on many forms, typically students are tasked with choosing exemplars from their work from a specific unit or stretch of time and submitting them as a single product. In most cases, teachers provide students with guidelines as to the types and quantities of work to be included as well as a rubric or a narrative of how the portfolio will be assessed.

From a strictly logistical standpoint, this assessment method saves teachers valuable time as they are assigning grades to the fruits of a single, student-driven process rather than a bottomless pile of assignments in the classroom turn-in bin. However, the benefits do not stop there!

Throughout the process, Students are encouraged to reflect upon their own strengths and weaknesses, feature assignments they are most proud of, and ultimately direct teacher's’ attention to where they want or need feedback the most. In response, teachers are then able to provide meaningful and differentiated responses to each student’s portfolio submission.

In the end, when portfolio grades are assigned, they are the products of a collaborative effort and reflective of student growth. The results mean more than just a ratio of correct to incorrect answers.

Making it digital

Rather than relying upon cumbersome analog portfolio formats like pocket folders or notebooks, there are a number of online alternatives. Free digital classroom workflows like SeeSaw, Google Classroom, and Edmodo are useful platforms for collecting, organizing, and featuring student work.

Once work is submitted, teachers can follow-up with remarks in such a way that students can also respond. This opens up the typically closed feedback loop making room for meaningful conversation and collaboration. What’s more, these digital classroom workflows also have features allowing student work and any teacher comments to be shared directly with parents and guardians.

In all likelihood, grades may never disappear entirely from education. That said, authentic and reflective assessment tools like portfolios (digital or otherwise) provide a combination of feedback, self-evaluation, and transparency that go a long way in making grades more accurate and effective representations of students’ efforts and growth.

Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings and on his blog.